The National Theatre of Scotland’s new adaptation of Joe Corrie’s “In Time of Strife” asks a lot of questions of its audience. Chiefly why is it that miners and striking miners in particular seem to threaten the establishment most and therefore need the harshest response. Written in 1926 to support, in its production, the soup kitchens that were feeding the starving miners and their families in Fife during a 7 month strike and lock out, it has been adapted and redesigned ostensibly because it is the 30th anniversary this year of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. A strike that effectively broke the powers of the Unions and heralded the Neo Liberalism that has shaped Britain through and after Thatcher. Profit and enterprise always and before community and the workforce.
While the seemingly prescient lines from the poem Women are Waiting, make it clear that the press will always pour their vile propaganda in the public’s ear about the miners’ strikes to come in the future; and the public will turn against them as a community as quickly as they mourn a pit disaster. The real point of the play doesn’t need the link to 1984 to make it speak volumes today.
The key messages and themes are ones which we are all too familiar with in 2014. The isolation within wider society, of a community bound by generational ties, ties of blood in every sense, is the same as we see in migrant communities in Britain. The fear of the other, at the same time of us, but apart from us. In 1926 as in 1984 the suspicion of those outside the mining communities of their motives and behaviour allowed the media and the politicians to paint them as pariahs deserving of little sympathy. In 1926 it meant that parish councils withdrew support and closed the soup kitchens six months into the strike to save the ratepayers, starving women and children so their men would go back to work. Shopkeepers and tradesmen refusing credit to the families of striking miners. People died of starvation in 1926. Children still go to bed hungry in 2014.
In 1984 I raised money for and donated food for foodbanks for the miners. 1n 2014 I am still donating food to foodbanks.
In 2014 this fear of the other is giving rise to a far right party now seen as mainstream and is seeing a rush to the tight by all the other Unionist parties to out scaremonger about the hated foreigner. A refugee in London has his belongings destroyed by bailiffs because he was £18 in debt with his rent. They do it because they can, just as they could in 1926.
In 1926 the value of the labour of the miners was cheap. With no control, mining companies could pay what they wanted and set the terms of the job. Returning to work after 7 months the miners were faced with longer hours for half the money.
In 2014, despite a minimum wage a government spokesman says that the disabled are no worth more than £2 an hour and that the unemployed must be prepared to work for their benefits, and pay differentials between men and women continue despite legislation to the contrary. Despite a move to create a living wage as a policy in the public sector there is no agreement to spread that to the third sector and crucially the private sector cannot be legislated to take up this humanitarian policy. No wonder Jock in the play says “ I will sell my muscle but not my soul”
In 1926 the miners felt betrayed by their political leaders and the unions and the companies would only take back men who denounced heir union and who would have no further allegiance to it. In 1984 Thatcher effectively emasculated the Union movement in the UK. In 2014 the trust in traditional politics has never been so low and we are seeing a backlash against Labour the traditional party of the “working man” in Scotland.
In 1926 the betrayal of blackleggers was no less fierce than it was for the scabs of the 1980’s. In some parts of Scotland in 2014 a similar sense of betrayal is felt for those that voted to put the Union ahead of the aspirations of an independent Scotland.
The videos of the police riding down the miners in 1984 and the disembodied voice of Thatcher denouncing the miners as the ones “killing democracy”, were chilling and made the link palpable for those of us who can remember 1984 but who have no living family members from 1926. But the real link that has to be made for generations to come whenever this play is revived is that despite the passing of the generations, despite the rise of the left, despite workers’ rights and legislation the truth is that we are moving back to a world private company ownership but ownership that is global and so much harder to beat. That we are moving back to a world where the gaps between those that have and those that will never have the means to have enough are growing again, that we are moving back to a world where people will take jobs on longer hours for less money and zero hours contracts. And we are moving back to a world where like the parish councils before them governments will remove benefits for those that don’t play the game and do what they are told. And we are moving back to a world where the now seemingly permanent tent for the “needy of Glasgow” almost Victorian in its nomenclature, seems almost normal.
It will take more than the singing of the Red Flag in theatres across the country to stem that tide but as Corrie eloquently put it in his final challenge to the audience
“Will no-one sing a song of such intensity to the men of all the nations?
That will shatter the system of things to its very foundations?”
Time to start singing loud and clear